The “Good” of Voluntourism

The problem with “The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys)” is most people, maybe even Pippa Biddle herself, misunderstand what Pippa Biddle is writing.

First, to get this elephant of an issue out of the way, the title of Pippa’s piece is grossly misleading. “Little White Girls (and Boys)” is essentially used as a proxy for rich young do-gooder travelers. The assumption that these two characteristics are synonymous is categorically untenable and unjustifiably wrong.

ANYWAY, the correct answer to, “Is voluntourism good?” is neither yes nor no. The correct answer is, “It depends what you mean by good”.

So lets walk through a couple meanings of “good”.

Good means increasing socioeconomic wellbeing

Here voluntourism does no good and probably does some harm. You may be able to slice and dice your activity and convince yourself on the flight home that you did some good. But face it, there is not a chance that a group of volunteers on vacation for a week or two surpassed the efficacy and efficiency of local workers, technically trained program leaders, implementers, and researchers, or simply the construction crew building the road to the rural areas. I don’t care how cute the kids at the orphanage were or how much the school needed a new classroom, we know how to do things better and resources that go toward less effective and efficient means of helping the global poor is a waste.

Pippa writes of her own experience, telling the story of the local Tanzanians staying up all night to rebuild the wall that her volunteer group messed up, so her friends and her wouldn’t know what a terrible job they did. “It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level.”

I traveled to Panama in back-to-back summers for a week apiece while in college. At the end of the first trip our group decided to donate money so the community we were working with could build a roadside shop to sell their cultural craft goods. When I returned a year later, a pile of cinderblocks, steel rebar, and corrugated metal roofing sheets were just laying on the ground. Nothing had been done to build the roadside shop. Turns out the community really didn’t want to scale up their part-time “businesses” and sell their goods by the roadside, even for free.

But here’s the thing that goes without saying that unfortunately is going unsaid (until now): If Pippa had never gone to Tanzania she would have never sent her money there or learned this lesson about the actual impact of her volunteering or seen first-hand the wretchedness of global inequality. If I had never traveled to Panama (twice) I would not have learned the lesson of local decision making and ownership as vividly as I did then.

Good means increasing knowledge and understanding about the world

Consider the following from the blog of Lee Crawfurd, a development economist working on education policy at Oxford Policy Management and who formerly worked in South Sudan as a development professional (perhaps he is better known simply as @rovingbandit).

Despite the dizzying scale of global inequality, the vast majority of charitable spending by individuals in rich countries is spent in rich countries, not poor ones. In the UK just 10% goes overseas. (The US government spends less than one percent of it’s budget on official foreign development assistance.)

And for good reasons: Why do we give? Our giving is driven by empathy. And we can’t empathize with 6 billion people at the same time. There’s just too much suffering to worry about it all – “we would be in a permanent emotional turmoil“. And so we use filters, including critically that our familiarity with a person matters, and our similarity and identification matter.

That is why (Nicholas) Kristof uses “bridge characters“:

“The problem that I face — my challenge as a writer — in trying to get readers to care about something like Eastern Congo, is that frankly, the moment a reader sees that I’m writing about Central Africa, for an awful lot of them, that’s the moment to turn the page. It’s very hard to get people to care about distant crises like that.

One way of getting people to read at least a few graphs in is to have some kind of a foreign protagonist, some American who they can identify with as a bridge character. And so if this is a way I can get people to care about foreign countries, to read about them, ideally, to get a little bit more involved, then I plead guilty.”

Spending time living in or even briefly visiting a developing country can let you skip the bridge characters. You are now familiar with, and can identify with, a handful of the millions of people living in societies with such a profoundly worse set of opportunities to those of us born in rich countries. That matters. There’s a sad irony that having made the empathetic leap, so many who work in development then seem to lose their empathy with the uninitiated. Having made a connection with someone living in extreme poverty, we forget how easy it was to not care before we had made that connection. I’d bet that the vast majority of development workers, even the most hardened economists, really got their passion from some form of real human interaction, not abstract analysis, and yet we pour scorn on young kids who venture out trying to have their own interactions and make their own connections, building their own cross-cultural empathy, because voluntourism is tacky. Does it really matter if it is tacky?

In terms of immediate development impact, village voluntourism is probably mostly irrelevant. We could spend time doing careful cost-benefit analysis of the value for money of having American teenagers build brick walls in Tanzania, or we could reflect on the 90% of our collective charitable impulse which goes on other rich people, the 99% of our government spending which goes on other rich people, or our narcissistic trade and immigration policies which help other rich people, and consider instead what it might take to get rich people to actually really give a fuck about global poverty, and that maybe just maybe that might come through actually living and working with people, even if just for a short time. Travel really does broaden the mind (there is even evidence, some of it randomized). If tacky white savior marketing for a fundamentally useless project is what it takes to grab some attention away from a video of a cat on YouTube, maybe that’s worth it?

Here’s the thing, voluntourism can be good if it is the best thing you will never do again. If short-term trips to developing countries are something you do every year to escape your normal life so that you can “give back” or make a “difference in the world”, then you are missing something. But if after returning from a short-term trip and the experience changed how you spend your money, how you vote, how you view the socioeconomic impact of your trip, and maybe your entire vocation… then voluntourism is a good thing, a very good thing.

For me during my first trip to Panama I didn’t see what I needed to see, I didn’t get it. During my second trip, I began to vividly understand what it actually means to do “good” in terms of raising socioeconomic wellbeing in the real world. This thirst for greater understanding caused me to study, for a semester, at the University of Ghana in Accra. Now as a development professional working in Western Kenya I am able to actually put these lessons into practice. Development (or real positive transformational change) is tedious, boring, dusty, and slow, it doesn’t happen in a week (or even two), and it often doesn’t photograph very well.

P.S. I’ve previously posted a “Mission Trip” Syllabus intended to aid in the learning for those going on short-term, mission, or voluntourism trips in the coming months. I hope some of you indulge in my offer to actually make this experience good.

2 thoughts on “The “Good” of Voluntourism

  1. This all reminds me of the spring break experience my wife and I had years ago chaperoning some college students on a trip to help Habitat for Humanity build houses. Time and time again afterwards I told others I thought the most “good” that came out of it was what it had done to educate and build our value systems. I am so proud of a grandson who says this better, and who has a lot more experience in that sort of thing than we did.
    I like it a lot.

  2. Pingback: Top Posts of 2014 | Jeff Bloem

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